We just LOVE Discard the Zine. It’s a brilliant little mag, made by two of our favourite people, Rebekkah Dooley and Gareth Evans. They have no funding, and no advertising and that means that they get to be as cheeky as you like. For issue #5, Hannah was invited to interview the powerhouse that is Fawn Weaver. If you don’t know her, well she is a formidable character who overcame some pretty big obstacles in her life to become a best selling author, a CEO extraordinaire, and the founder of Uncle Nearest Tennessee Whiskey.
The story of Uncle Nearest is just incredible. Check out this Forbes article if you’re not familiar! And then dive into Hannah’s interview with Fawn below in which they share a common passion for diversity work.
For more superb writing from the cocktail industry check out Discard the Zine here
HANNAH: You have grown up around music all your life, at the heart of Motown’s extended family. Did it seem quite normal to you when you were small to have to have soul stars coming around for tea?
FAWN: They wouldn’t come for tea, but they would come for Bible study. My father began a group called the Christian Entertainers Fellowship (CEF) so folks like Stevie, Smokey, Phillip Bailey and more than I can even recount were at our home all the time. That continued well beyond my childhood though. Any time I’d visit my parents, they always had entertainers at their home.
H: Looking at the incredible career you’ve had, you’re exceptional at making things happen. Where did your business acumen and drive come from?
F: My mother would tell you it was just innate, that what I’ve done is something she nor my father could have ever fathomed, and that was before Uncle Nearest. I think some of it came from my father, however, as he was one of less than a handful of people who negotiated his publishing rights with Berry Gordy from the beginning. Barry was known for his 360 deals, but my dad always owned the rights to his music and now we (his children) do. I don’t think he could have done that without some sort of innate business acumen, as he grew up picking cotton in the fields of Houston and his mother was a housekeeper.
H: You had already bossed out an amazing career in writing, becoming a best-selling author, and opened one of LA’s hottest restaurants with renowned Chef Garvin when you then chose to immerse yourself in the hospitality industry, taking a series of roles within the trade. Can you tell us more about that experience, (where you worked and what you did) and how you found that change in work culture?
F: It was wonderful as many successful entrepreneurs from an early age never really have a chance to learn how to lead by having been led. Meaning, I became an employee, which made me a better employer. I opened a special events firm, FEW Entertainment, in 1994 and soon after added public relations as I had a natural knack for it and gained two significant clients on the events side who wanted me to also take over their PR. I met Chef G. Garvin when he was opening up Reign restaurant in Beverly Hills as their executive chef. He’d mentioned to one of my team members that they needed someone to do their grand opening party and so G. Garvin reached out to me. I wasn’t available to do his event but agreed to do the walk-through and give my thoughts on what type of events person he should hire. After that, we hit it off and I began bringing clients to Reign regularly. When G. decided he wanted his next career move to be a restaurant of his own, I developed the business plan, oversaw a re-branding (he was known by Gerry Garvin before the re-branding), raised the half million dollars to get the restaurant started and then worked alongside him as minority owner and business manager for the first four years of the restaurant’s lifespan. It was following this experience that I made a decision to step back from entrepreneurialism and enjoy what I thought would be a much more relaxed life. As it turns out, I’m not wired to have a leisurely life. I happen to love working very long hours, six days a week and I was made to be an entrepreneur. So, I fully leaned into that and have continued on ever since.
H: You have used your resources to support and elevate black talent – and specifically in an industry like hospitality where black-owned businesses are underrepresented, and legacies overlooked. Do you see positive change on the horizon for making cocktail and spirits culture a more equitable industry?
F: 100 percent. We’re about to make an announcement that will help spur this along even faster and I couldn’t be more excited about where our industry is heading. I believe we are paving the way for other industries to follow our lead, but if we can take this industry from being almost all white male to actually looking like America (70% minority, e.g., BIPOC and women), then any industry can successfully make that shift.
H: Where did your attraction to the cocktail and spirits world spring from? Was it the cocktails, the hospitality, or the use of spirits themselves that drew you?
F: I was following a story and building a legacy. Everything else came secondary to that. If the story I’d been chasing was that of the first Black jeans maker, what we’d be talking about right now is the fastest-growing independent jeans company in America. So, the reason we’re talking about Uncle Nearest being the fastest-growing, most awarded American whiskey in the world, is because Nearest Green was a whiskey maker.
H: We’re all bartenders that read this mag by and large so I have to ask! Is there a cocktail bar that has been a transformative experience for you? Do you make cocktails at home and what do you put together if you do?
F: Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, OR. Before my experience there, I mostly drank barrel strength single barrel Bourbons. I had this misperception that you shouldn’t mix great whiskey. Then I went to MWL, and the mixologists were part spirits historian and part drink maker extraordinaire. I shared the flavors I liked and next thing I knew, I was sipping on what remains one of my favorite cocktails of all time. I don’t think it actually has a name, but it’s a little like if you took a Tennessee Gold (essentially, a Gold Rush made with Uncle Nearest), added ginger, and then took that mixed drink and then carbonated it. Let me tell you, after that drink, my little snooty “I only drink my whiskey neat” went right out the window. I wanted to then experience any and every talented mixologist around the world. I’ve had some spectacular cocktails since then, but whenever I’m in Portland I have to go to MWL and ask for them to recreate that drink.
H: I read that your inspiration to further research the life of Nearest Green began after stumbling on an article about him. On learning that this man’s name had been erased you got completely caught up in the history of this unsung hero of whiskey distilling, dedicating yourself to elevating his story: the man who taught Jack Daniels to distill (and in doing so can be credited with the success of the entire category of Tennessee whiskey). I’m so keen to know more about your trip to Lynchburg to find the living family of Nearest Green. With some of those you interviewed more than a hundred years old, it seemed like you got to meet living connections to distant history! How aware were they of their family legacy? Has it been a project that has brought the family closer together?
F: Everything fell into place when I arrived here in Lynchburg, like a movie that was being directed from heaven, as none of it makes sense to me — even to this day. My husband and I hadn’t been in Lynchburg but for a few hours before the now eldest living descendant of Jack Daniel came through the library doors where we were doing research. By the time we finished speaking to her, she’d not only connected us with a descendant of Nearest who had been researching their family history full-time for over 25 years, but also told us the home where Jack grew up and where the distillery was where he learned how to make Tennessee whiskey from Nearest Green (that turned out to be Distillery No. 7 in district number 4, and then changed to Distillery No. 16 in district number 5 in the late 19th century) was for sale. The 313-acre property had been on the market for 15 months and still hadn’t sold.
She then had her cousin call me, who was a realtor, and offered to take us to see the property the next day. We immediately put an offer in on the home (I mean, seriously, this was a piece of American history…how it was sitting there for 15 months is still baffling to me). The next month, I learned she wasn’t just a realtor. She’d worked in the family business – Jack Daniel’s – her entire life, and when she retired from the family business after 31 years, she was the Director of Whiskey Operations. She offered that if I ever decided to honor Nearest with his own bottle, she’d come out of retirement to make sure I got it right. She is the Director of Whiskey Operations for Uncle Nearest.
H: It seems to me that while at some point over the 20th century Nearest Green’s history was written out of the Jack Daniels story, that present day Brown Forman has readily embraced Green’s history, even re-writing the story to make Jack himself the ‘second master distiller’. Were you pleasantly surprised at the response of such a large company?
F: I was, and believe it was the right thing to do.
H: At what point did you realise the whiskey industry was calling you?
F: I don’t know that it was the whiskey industry that was calling me. I think it was the legacy of Nearest Green that was calling me, and the whiskey industry was where his legacy needed to be cemented.
H: Fast forward to today and you’ve relocated to Tennessee, built a distillery, and have as the master blender the great-great granddaughter of Nearest Green. It’s a phenomenal achievement to have pulled together this project and to even have drawn in members of the surviving family. Have you begun distilling at the new site? Can you tell us a little bit about the stills, the site, and maybe anything you learned in getting a distillery off the ground?
F: We have been distilling ourselves since very close to our inception at Tennessee Distilling in Columbia, TN. They have several 36” column stills and have been a brilliant partner of ours on the distilling, aging and bottling side while we get our own Still House up and running. At our 270-acre Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, TN, our still house was built out with an 18” Vendome copper still but the space was designed to accommodate a second 18” Vendome copper still the moment it’s needed. We are fortunate that so many of the industry’s foremost leaders came in as consultants for us, because they understood the significance of having the first distillery in the world named after an African American and came alongside us to ensure we got it right.
When you’re building a start-up distillery with a copper still, you can figure things out as you go. When you’re already selling 250,000 cases and in your 11th quarter in a row of triple-digit gains (100%+ over same time prior year), you don’t have that kind of flexibility. You have to make sure you’re prepared to scale up to a million cases a year pretty quickly, which means we had to bring in the best engineers and industry leaders to assist. And I’m definitely not above phoning a friend (which, are usually the folks at Jack Daniel’s) whenever I run into something I don’t fully understand. Our Director of Whiskey Operations, Sherrie Moore, hired and trained Jeff Arnett, trained his predecessor, Jimmy Bedford, and hired their current AGM, Melvin Keebler. So, I’ve been fortunate to be able to have that connection from day one. I reach out to Melvin anytime we’re trying to make a decision on an element of our distillery and we have multiple options. He’s on speed dial for that.
H: What’s the method to making your award-winning Tennessee whiskey?
F: That’s a two-part question now that we have our own 2017 barrel entry whiskey making its debut into the market soon through one of our blends. For our current Uncle Nearest, beginning with spectacular sourced whiskey is imperative. Then having someone with an innate talent for blending, like Victoria Eady Butler, is the second ingredient. Bring the two together, and it is magic.
For our whiskey we laid down that we will begin blending in soon, the key was following every single thing we knew about Nearest Green’s way of making whiskey. We knew his barrel entry proof was 110 and that is a recipe utilized between 80-84% corn. We can assume his grains were non-GMO farm to glass so ours are too. We know he never stored in a rick house that was taller than one-story and that his warehouse was non-temperature controlled so we’ve followed that too. Uncle Nearest is the most awarded American whiskey (which, of course, includes Bourbon) of 2019 and 2020 and we’re currently working on retaining that title in 2021. So far, so good!
H: Are you musical yourself? How do you incorporate music into your day-to-day and what are you listening to most right now? What do you drink when you have an Uncle Nearest and is there a soundtrack to that drink?
F: I love to sing (although I prefer singing loud and off pitch…not sure why) and I love to dance. My favorite music ranges from country (Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw) to gospel (Maverick City) to “The Carters,” as my husband refers to the two Spotify playlists I like to listen to most on long drives (Beyoncé and Jay Z).
H: In setting up the Nearest Green foundation your company has made it possible for any descendant of Nearest Green to access a fully supported college education. What have been your proudest moments from the Nearest Green Foundation to date?
F: There have been so many! I attended our first graduation in 2019 and one of Nearest’s descendants graduated with Honors from the University of Tennessee. She then went on to get her masters at the University of Alabama. We just had another graduate from UT a few weeks ago (but this time I couldn’t attend as it was a virtual ceremony) and have had quite a few graduate with either their undergraduate or master’s degree since. But my proudest moments would have to be forming the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative alongside our friends at Jack Daniel’s, launching the Black Business Booster program which actively assists 17 different Black-founded and owned brands, stepping up during the pandemic to distribute more than 250,000 N-95 masks to hospitals and front-line workers, and distributing cloth masks to those within communities in which people of color were dying at disproportionately high rates. Between each of these initiatives in 2020, we gave away over $500,000. For a company only three years old at the time the pandemic hit, I think that’s pretty extraordinary.